What do the Human Torch, MJ and, now, Ariel from The Little Mermaid have in common? They are historically white characters who have been recast as people of color, and as a result, fans have reacted badly.
Objectively, the young singer/actress appears to be a perfect fit for Ariel, which is exactly what Director Rob Marshall said when describing the casting. "After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance -- plus a glorious singing voice -- all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role."
Yet, some people are unhappy, and, despite their denials, the reason why seems to come down to one factor: In Disney's 1989 animated film, Ariel is a Caucasian redhead, while Bailey is black.
WE'VE DONE THIS SONG & DANCE BEFORE
Nothing that follows will be news to those who regularly monitor cultural conversations that emerge around film and television. You've, unfortunately, heard all of this before, and most definitely will again. You heard it when Zendaya was cast as MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and when Michael B. Jordan was the Human Torch in 2015's Fantastic Four, and countless times before that.
What many in the #NotMyAriel camp probably don't realize, or have forgotten, is that this isn't even the first Disney live-action remake to cast black leads in core roles. In 1997, The Wonderful World of Disney released a live-action version of Cinderella starring Brandy Norwood as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Whoopi Goldberg as the queen, with her son being played by Paolo Montalban.
Again, none of this is new.
NO CHILDHOODS ARE BEING RUINED
The most common complaint about Bailey's casting is that, because it's different, it's somehow a child-ruining catastrophe.
Of course, that argument holds no weight when you consider that Disney has been making changes to its franchises, both big and small, as it expands its catalog of live-action adaptations of its animated classics. In fact, the biggest complaint leveled at the projects until now is that they're too similar to their animated originals. What's the point of seeing the same movie but in live-action/photorealistic CGI? Yet somehow, the casting of Ariel as a princess of color is a bridge "too far."
Many #NotMyAriel critics deflect accusations of racism by insisting the problem isn't related to skin color, but instead to hair color. But that creates a false equivalence, implying that redheads are somehow an oppressed minority who suffer discrimination equal to, or worse than, African-Americans. In that narrative, qualities traditionally associated with white European cultures are framed as being in "danger" of being erased from cinema, all because one character who was white in an animated film will be black in its live-action iteration.
It completely ignores the fact that, like any other actor, Bailey can simply dye her hair red, or wear a wig. It's not like a change of hair to play a character isn't common practice in Hollywood. But, really, Bailey doesn't have to do either of those things to portray Ariel. If she kept her natural hair color, so what? While it's been an undeniable aspect of her appearance, Ariel isn't actually defined by her red hair. To think so is a superficial read on an iconic character.
ORIGINAL, NON-WHITE PRINCESSES INSTEAD?
Some of The Little Mermaid casting critics offer a compromise: Simply create an original Disney character who is black. That seems relatively inoffensive, almost positive, at first blush. After all, that's exactly what happened in 2009 -- 72 years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- when the studio introduced its first black Princess with Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.
However, "create an original character" is a refrain trotted out virtually any time a publisher or studio decides to shake up the status quo by replacing, even temporarily, an established (and almost invariably white, male and heterosexual) hero with a minority character.
When an "original" black character was brought to the screen in the form of (lowercase-P princess) Shuri in Black Panther, from Disney-owned Marvel Studios, there was pushback when the filmmakers declared her "the smartest person in the world." How could a princess from a technologically advanced nation, and head of Wakanda Design Group, possibly be smarter than Tony Stark and Bruce Banner?
So, even when given a "fair alternative," racism rears its head. The idea that The Little Mermaid shouldn't feature a black lead because it isn't an originally "black" story is pretty ridiculous.
A SELF-CENTERED ARGUMENT
Those who argue there is any non-racist reason why a black actress can't play a traditionally white role are just wrong. On top of that, it's incredibly selfish to keep putting barriers in front of actors of color in this way. Representation is important, and The Little Mermaid is a pretty universal story. Regardless of the character's race, the themes and ideas should apply to people from all over the world.
To deny a black child coming to this story for the first time a chance to see themselves represented on screen is a selfish one. And it's also selfish to deny a child already represented by the original -- a white, red-haired child -- to see the same themes they identified with applied to people who look a little different from them. In the end, casting like this is something that can, and should, bring people together far more than it does divide them.
Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Halle Bailey, The Little Mermaid does not yet have a release date.